I, like many young, bright-eyed fashion enthusiasts had once looked at the glistening shop windows of Barneys New York with such aspiration. Housing Europe’s most prolific designers, the luxury department store – a revered New York institution – has a long and established heritage known not only for its stylish offerings but celebrity-infused parties and exclusive industry events. But as news surfaced on Tuesday that the company had filed for bankruptcy, it came as no surprise. And it leaves us to ask, is brick-and-mortar retail dead?
Barneys New York was first established by Barney Pressman in 1923. Pawning his wife’s engagement ring, the savvy businessman opened up a 500-square-foot men’s discount clothing store on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street. A far cry from the marble-floored space of its current flagship stores, the company had a simple slogan, “No Bunk, No Junk, No Imitations.” Reportedly the first Manhattan clothier to use radio and television, the name of Barneys echoed through the new era of technology across the island-city. Selling brand-name clothing at discounted prices, the founder purchased showroom samples, retail overstocks, and manufacturers’ closeouts at bankruptcy sales – later to see the same fate – and attracted customers through free alterations and parking.
It wasn’t until three decades later when Barney’s son Fred, transitioned the booming trade into a luxury destination. “My father and I have always hated cheap goods … I didn’t want to sell low-end merchandise. Now, many of those who chose to are verging on bankruptcy,” Fred Pressman later told Business Week.
Working with Pierre Cardin and Hubert de Givenchy, the concept of luxury men’s retail was born. Expanding its brick-and-mortar space with a five-storey addition on its self dubbed America House, the birth of women’s luxury didn’t come to fruition until 1976 when Fred’s sons Gene and Bob joined the family-run business.
Since the inception of the gendered department store, Barneys has become an institution of pop culture. While the store was the subject of praise in wildly successful ’90s television including Sex and the City and Friends, it was also the apt setting for celebrity parties, high-profile collaborations and even philanthropist work. Just this year, the Barneys New York Foundation celebrated pride in support of the LGBT Community Centre.
Unfortunately for Barneys, 2019 is not the first time the company has filed for bankruptcy. In 1996, the store filed its first bankruptcy after the Pressman’s lost control of the business. Since then, the once-lauded retailer had changed ownership several times. Several issues have attested to the closure of at least 15 of its 22 stores, but the one grabbing headlines is the absurd increase in rent. Earlier this year, the company was forced to downsize its Madison Avenue store in an effort to reduce the store’s USD $30 million (AUD $43 million) annual rent cost, according to the New York Post.
But just as Barneys once stated on its Instagram in wake of the news, “Trends come and go, but institutions are timeless.” And if we love anything, it’s a major comeback story. Stay tuned.